Easy Like Sunday

When they rode last, Elizabeth was earning her 15th win in 15 starts. Her performance, along with Deborah and Tara, was dominant in Saratoga. They realized, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” in every sense.

Since returning, they haven’t had the opportunity to ride until now. The priorities of medical school took precedence. They needed to complete the laboratory courses from the spring term. The fall term began the following week. Coupled with the ever shifting pandemic conditions, they opted to stay in Aurora rather than come home over the weekends. Also, they were subject to random COVID testing, requiring them to be available 24/7.

back in sync: Deborah and Comet (North Ranch, Nov 19 2020)

With six weeks off, it is making up for lost time, getting back in riding shape. The horses, they were ready to return to work. Grid exercises. Circle exercises. Cavaletti exercises. All the fundamentals. The pleasant weather has allowed them to practice outside. Trish is scheduled to come down, next week, to oversee the practice sessions for three days. Those practices will set the stage to resume jumping.

Saratoga: Dominant Performance

 

“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight? Oh Lord, oh Lord”

Winning her first three starts, some took notice. After six starts, six wins, it soon became, “Could she win another?” She was putting together a most impressive run. And, she was doing so, very convincingly. On this night, she was aiming for her fifteenth win, in fifteen starts.

Her dominant performance was not surprising. Everything that had been worked on over the years, in practice and the show ring, was falling into place. The riding. The vision. The clarity of mind. The confidence.

During her three weeks in Saratoga, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” was her mantra. “Can you feel it coming in the air tonight?” She certainly did.

The daylong wait built an anticipation, particularly among the other riders and their crews. They had not seen a rider dominate, at this level, with three different horses. The professionals similarly noted they rarely seen a rider on the Rolex or Longines professional tours ride this strong. All agreed the public was missing something magical. If the shows were open, the atmosphere would have been absolutely electric.

waiting game: Elizabeth with Candace (Happy Girl) on a walk (Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Drawing the 19th start position, it would be at least another hour and a half before she would ride.

A mix of tight and sweeping turns, a measure of patience was required on the highly technical course. It was a 13 obstacle/16 effort course with a time limit of 78.50 sec. With two DQs among the first five riders, the other three had down rails. One also had a time limit penalty.

Riding sixth was Deborah. While starting on a slower pace, Deborah and Comet were ahead of the planned time at the first split. Deborah decided to scrap her riding plan and attack the course. While they brushed three or four rails attacking the course, none went down. The first clear round, their time was a blazing fast 64.77 sec. It would add pressure on the other riders, one in particular.

the alone time between Deborah and Comet (Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Of the next three riders, one DQ, two with multiple rails down. A double, double-oxer, in a sweeping right hand turn, was being missed, leading to the three DQs. Simply, they were beginner mistakes.

Tara, riding tenth with Cameron, was next. Like Deborah and Comet, they were ahead of the planned time at the first split. Tara, however, stayed with her riding plan. It was clean, no brushed rails. The second clear round of the night, guaranteeing a jump off. They finished at 72.68 sec. Though eight seconds slower than Deborah, the time was of no consequence. It was about making the jump off.

Nicole, Mel, Bill and Sarah were the professionals among the next group. And, some of the best you will find on the tour. The same could be said about the three ranked amateurs from the Tristate area, and the junior from Florida. They all rode well, but each had a dropped rail, or two, along the way. Deborah and Tara had put pressure on the remaining riders, but the short time limit had required a measure of decisive riding.

The moment had arrived. Would she be able to win her fifteenth start?

A tap to her helmet, she was ready. The song in her phones was cranked to high when she handed them off.

Entering the show ring, Elizabeth slowly cantered Lilith around the perimeter of the course. Switching directions twice, she switched Lilith’s direction again to line up the first fence. Crossing the start timer, they were on their way. Fence one, two and three were easily cleared. The double-oxer combination on a sweeping left at four, clear. The triple combination on the straight, clear. Into the sweeping right, with the double, double-oxer, it seemed Elizabeth was going to miss the fence completely. The official was poised to raise her flag to indicate a miss. Elizabeth broke Lilith right again, they cleared the fence. It set up the line for the remainder of the course. She let Lilith carry the rhythm.

Lilith proudly wearing her blue ribbon ear bonnet (Saratoga, Jun 27 2020)

Across the finish timer, they made it look so effortless. Their time, 65.07 sec.

The jump off was another rare moment. Just the three of them. Training together, they know how each other rides. Whoever would ride first will put on the pressure with a fast, aggressive line. Starting first in the 6 obstacle/9 effort jump off was Deborah. From the start, it was a very aggressive line taking Comet close to the post over each obstacle. Nothing was wide. More importantly, they finished clear. The high-risk, aggressive line paid off – their time, 34.02 sec. Tara was next. They rode the same line. Cameron was a little wide coming into the last turn. They rode clear, finishing at 34.11 sec.

Elizabeth did another slow canter with Lilith, keeping a medium rein on her mare. To win, they would need a perfect ride. The line needed to be perfect. They would need to be ahead of Deborah’s split time. A fraction off, Deborah would be the winner. At the split time, Elizabeth and Lilith were fractionally behind. Running out of course, they needed to make up the time. If anyone could pull it off, it would be Elizabeth. Her line was the same as Deborah’s. Last obstacle, Elizabeth lined Lilith right at the post. Either they would clear, she would be knocked off, or DQ. She felt the post press against her right boot as they went over. They were clear. Elizabeth’s time did not flash on the scoreboard. The officials were likely rechecking times. It had to be close. Then, it flashed. Elizabeth finished at 34.019 sec. Deborah’s time was 34.021 sec.

For the fifteenth time, over three weeks, it was a family affair on the winner’s podium. The celebration culminated with a champagne spray. (Griffin had the champagne ready.)

Elizabeth was the best with fifteen wins in fifteen starts. Deborah and Tara each earned seven reds (2nd place) and seven whites (3rd place). They tied for second in one event, the USHJA National Hunter Derby, in the second week. They finished the three weeks in Saratoga with eight reds and seven whites each.

Tara and Brie pushing for second in the 1.40m Open Jumper (Saratoga, Jun 20 2020)

After the ceremonies, it was settling in the horses for the overnight.

Back at the rental house, well after 1:30 am, a roast beef sandwich and chips for dinner. A Solo cup of champagne. A hot shower. Then, to bed after three.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life.”

Notes

The song, set to high, in Elizabeth’s phones, “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Of course. A video of the song may be found here. If you watch the music video, the intensity you see in Phil’s eyes at the start of the song was close to the intensity of Elizabeth’s eyes at the start of her ride.

Saratoga: Fourth of July

It is the Fourth of July. Down the road, the battlefield where the Continental Army earned an important victory, in October 1777, stopping an offensive that would have given British forces nominal control of the Hudson River Valley and the Champlain Valley. The best laid of plans failed when the necessary forces did not appear, to flank the American positions.

Two-hundred and forty-three years later, the stakes are fewer. It is Grand Prix Day at White Hollow Farm.

Under the lights, at 8:30 pm ET, nineteen riders and their horses will begin to compete over a 13 obstacle/16 effort, 1.45 m course. The Grand Prix is the premiere event of this show week. The best riders. The best horses. While there are favorites, the event can be won by anyone. Seasoned professional or one making their first Grand Prix start ever. The field of competition is level. Deborah often says, the NFL maxim of “on any given Sunday …” applies.

practice time: Comet waits his turn for a short practice at mid-morning (White Hollow Farm, Saratoga, Jul 04 2020)

Much of the day was staying loose, the daughters and their horses. A light workout and short practice in the morning. A little people watching. And, a couple of short naps, helped along by a warm summer day. Once the course walkthrough was completed, in the late afternoon, the girls separated to prepare themselves individually. In the last hour before the start, it is their ready time. Stretching exercises and changing into their Grand Prix clothes. Equally as busy are Griffin and Sophia, getting Lilith, Comet and Cameron ready. A final check, by the girls, follows.

The smiles, the chatter, have faded away, replaced by a laser focus in their eyes.

The time to be a champion has drawn near.

Saratoga: Week Three

The quiet mornings. The quiet evenings.

Nestled among, surrounded, by trees. Birds singing their songs of summer. A neigh, or two, can be heard.

Horses and Saratoga are synonymous. Several horse farms dot the area. It is home to the legendary racetrack, in which nearly every thoroughbred of note have raced in their careers. Elizabeth’s Lilith had a turn on the track, as a promising two-year old filly, in the undercard at the Travers Stakes. Unfortunately, Lilith’s run was not a good one. She practiced well during the week to race day, but finished third to last. Stepping off the plane, then off the trailer, Lilith knew she had been here before. The difference, Elizabeth, her similarly strong-willed partner. In their first event, in the first week, Elizabeth saw to the vanquishing of any lingering ghosts from the past.

Elizabeth and Lilith: the look of champions (White Hollow Farm, Saratoga, Jun 18 2020)

Closed to the public, the shows have been a quiet experience. The distractions are few. Without family, friends and followers, those in the show ring are cheered on by their fellow riders. It is a more relaxed atmosphere. Vendor row, which is the hub of activity at a show, reflected the relaxed atmosphere. A single catering business. A single horse supply business. A single farrier. Lunch, itself, was a happening. It was more of a picnic, and a break in the day’s action.

On one off day, between shows, the professionals, Deborah, Tara and Elizabeth traded stories from the tour. And, of course, trading lockdown stories. They definitely charmed the younger riders. On another off day, a clinic by a trainer, for the younger riders, on how to prepare for a show. In prior years, rarely would such off day events be held. Perhaps, a media day or a fan appreciation day. It was a bit of brightness.

At the end of Week Three, many of the professionals will move on. Maybe to Traverse City. Maybe to Florida. Maybe to Lexington. The daughters, it will be back to Colorado for them. They have a couple of lab courses to complete before the start of their third year at med school. One of the professionals asked if they will be giving discounts. Tara, who is a live wire, said, “Certainly. I’ll discount to 110% from the standard 125%, provided you have an insurance card.” When asked if an auto insurance card would qualify, she replied it would.

The stay in Saratoga has gone by much too quickly. Like the saying goes, “All good things …”

Saratoga: Week One

A special post by Lauren Westin, MD.

If sunrise was the measure, the first one they saw in Saratoga said their first week was going to be a good one.

The first, full day at White Hollow Farm was busy. Many riders were arriving. The main business of the day was in-processing. Official paperwork, from registry records to veterinary records to event entry forms, and then some, ready to be presented along with an FEI or USEF passport. Stall assignments, learning your way around the complex, part of the process. When the girls arrived Monday afternoon, they did their in-processing while Griffin and Sophia settled in the horses. Everyone, including the horses, were tired. Losing two hours to the time zone change …

Keeping it simple and relaxed. This was the plan for the first day. Griffin briefed the girls on each horse, ahead of the morning feed. She noted they tolerated the trip very well. No stress issues. No physical issues. While the horses largely have the same diet, they have specific individual needs. After the feed, it was a short walk around. A light workout followed in a practice arena. Some of the new arrivals couldn’t help to notice their activity, watching intently.

During the workout, Griffin watched each horse and charted each step for the girls. Sophia kept track of who was watching the workout. Next, it was the allotted paddock time to cool down and graze. Griffin and Sophia kept an eye on the horses. Once their paddock time was over, it was back to the barn to relax for the remainder of the day. And, maybe, another walk in the late afternoon.

The show experience is a carefully coordinated routine. It is about keeping things normal as possible.

COVID Impact

A horse show is a busy affair. The COVID restrictions, however, have made for a quieter, but very business like atmosphere. Yet, there is a measure of nervousness. No one really knows what to expect, officials included. “It is like being a test subject,” Tara described. “The focus is on everyone, the pressure to get things right from the start.” Poor performances, officials making a bad ruling, or show managers missing on the details will lead to second-guessing on the wisdom of restarting so soon. The professional tours, Rolex and Longines, are watching closely as they await their restart in September.

While everyone is required to wear a mask, observe physical distancing, and are subject to random temperature checks, David has said it is making for an interesting experience. It is very surreal. Except for the catering vendor, there are no other vendors. While hunter/jumper shows are known for their warm, friendly and inviting nature, the absence of friends, family and fans is rather noticeable. The priority is staying well, staying safe.

Showing

Show week can pass awfully fast. It starts on Wednesday. By Friday, it is already the mid-point of the schedule. Saturday night, it’s the premiere event everyone is waiting on, the Grand Prix. Riders can sense who is having a good meet, who isn’t. Though the field of competitors is not large, around 100, it is a competitive one.

riding time: Sophia with Candace (Happy Girl) on a day off (White Hollow Farm, Jun 18 2020)

How are the girls doing? They rarely talk about how they are doing. Instead, they talk about what they can do to improve their riding. The little things only they would notice.  What they will tell you is the fun they are having. “It’s okay to have fun,” Deborah has said. “What’s going on elsewhere, it stays there.”

My best man, he’s been shouldering a lot of weight. It is good for him to have time away from the everyday.